Free Communities of Color
After the Revolution, the free Black population grew exponentially. Whether by manumission, escape, military service, or birth, Black people found paths to freedom. In 1790 there were almost 60,000 free African Americans in the United States. By 1860, the population had grown to almost 500,000. Yet Black freedom was limited, and regulated. Free African Americans risked being kidnapped. They were required to carry badges or cards that identified them as free or face enslavement.
Facing racism, violence, and economic hardship, free Black people turned inward. They forged autonomous, tight-knit communities and neighborhoods—foundations for freedom.
Across the nation, free Black people created an infrastructure that helped them to survive. At the center was the Church, which guided all aspects of community life. It was an incubator for important institutions that strengthened and enriched the community. Free Black leaders organized fraternal orders, antislavery societies, and national conventions to uplift all Black people. Educational institutions like the Free African School and literary societies promoted intellect and pride. The Black press, including the first African American newspaper, Freedom’s Journal, was a vehicle to publicly challenge slavery and injustice. Black entrepreneurs, like the Toussaints of New York, provided philanthropic support.
Free African Americans responded to discrimination in different ways. From the impassioned cry of Henry Highland Garnet for “resistance” and the radical voice of David Walker, who encouraged violent resistance—to the global vision of John Russwurm, who supported emigration to west Africa—free African Americans built institutions and traditions that still stand today. They pushed the definition of freedom and forced the nation to face its contradictions.
Petitioning for Freedom
As the Revolutionary War broke out, free and enslaved African Americans petitioned for freedom, equality, and justice through the courts and state legislatures. They sought to assert their rights, promote their identity as citizens of the new nation, and challenge their status as enslaved people. These lawsuits and petitions created a powerful record of their activist efforts.
A Great Number of Blackes . . . in a State of slavery . . . Petitioners apprehend that they have in common with all other men a Natural and Unalienable Right to . . . freedom.
Prince Hall, 1777
Prince Hall, born enslaved in Boston, Massachusetts, gained his freedom shortly after the Revolutionary War. An entrepreneur, property owner, and taxpayer, Prince Hall is credited with founding the African Lodge of the Honorable Society of Free and Accepted Masons, the first lodge of Black Freemasonry. He was devoted to the cause of freedom and equality for all African Americans. Free and enslaved African Americans raised their voices in the public arena and petitioned for freedom, equality, and justice through the courts and state legislatures.
In 1777 Prince Hall petitioned the Massachusetts government to abolish slavery, based on the idea of liberty promoted during the Revolutionary era.
Belinda, an enslaved woman born in Africa and enslaved by the Royall family, petitioned the Massachusetts legislature in 1783 for her freedom. Belinda’s detailed petition shed light on the horrors of slavery. She shared her story from the terror of her kidnapping in Africa through her experience of enslavement. Belinda’s successful petition granted her a pension, providing one of the earliest recorded examples of reparations.
Paul Cuffe was born a free man in Massachusetts. His mother was Native American and his father was of West African Ashanti lineage. An entrepreneur and philanthropist, Cuffe gained wealth as owner of an international shipping company. Cuffe supported the emigration movement and sponsored several voyages to Sierra Leone. Despite his success, as a Black man he was viewed as a second-class citizen and denied equal rights. As a taxpayer, Paul Cuffe petitioned the Massachusetts legislature in 1780 and demanded his right to vote.
While Paul Cuffe's petition was denied, it became part of the state record and influenced the development of the Massachusetts Constitution, which granted equal rights to all male citizens.